How many times have you heard people saying that Welsh was a dead language? Probably quite a lot. I certainly have.
The reality though is that Welsh is absolutely not dead. Here are some statistics from some Welsh-speaking communities in North West Wales (the Fro Gymraeg) to prove it:
- In the town of Caernarfon, the percentage of primary school children who spoke Welsh at home went up from 75.6% in 2013 to 78.7% in 2017.
- In the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, the figures increased from 73.3 to 77.0% during those same years, and in both towns – this had nothing to do with English-speakers moving out – rather the number of Welsh-speaking households increased.
- Also, in Gwynedd, there were a number of smaller villages which saw similar stories – in Waunfawr, on the edge of Snowdonia, the number of pupils speaking Welsh at home increased from 66 out of 98 in 2010 to 78 out of 100 in 2017.
- On Anglesey - the county town, Llangefni, saw its number of primary school pupils from Welsh-Speaking homes jump from 309 in 2013 to 337 in 2017, an increase from 72.0% to 72.2%.
- Also, on Anglesey, 15 of the 25 Welsh-at-home majority PSs saw an increase in the percentage of pupils speaking Welsh at home during those four years.
- In 2011, in 9/14 of Gwynedd’s secondary schools, Welsh was more widely used than English in the playground.
- Even some weaker areas had some good news – in the town of Dolgellau, the percentage of primary school children speaking Welsh at home went up from 27% in 2010 to 30% in 2013 to 32% in 2017.
Not bad for a language that is supposed to be dying.
So why is Welsh doing so badly in other areas?
Why is the news of Welsh dying out in other areas, often just up the road, equally true?
- Why in the seaside resort of Criccieth, did the percentage of children from Welsh-Speaking homes fall from 64% to 42% from 2004 to 2017?
- Why in the ‘honey pot village’ of Beddgelert, just west of Snowdon, did it fall from 50% in 2005 to 10% a decade later?
- Why in the lakeside town of Bala, did it fall from 60% to 49% between 2013 and 2017?
- Why, in Llanberis, the base for Snowdon, did it fall from 69% to 51% during those four years?
- Why, in Dolbenmaen, did it fall from 77.5% to 52.3%, again, during those four years?
- Why, in the same time period, did Bethesda’s infant school see the same figure drop from 70.6% to 55.7% during that same time period?
- Why, in Tregarth, did it fall from 50% to 26.8% in just 10 years?
Why is Welsh dying out so rapidly in Bala, Llanberis and Dolbenmaen when it’s been holding out so well in places like Caernarfon, Llanelli and Blaenau Ffestiniog?
It’s clearly not the Internet, Facebook, or TV programmes, since Welsh-Speaking teenagers in Caernarfon have Facebook just as much as non-Welsh-speaking kids from Bangor do. Same with smartphones and TV programmes.
And it’s certainly not a natural death that’s been going on in places like Bala and Llanberis – how on earth could such rapid falls just happen like that?
The role of in-migration – can we talk about it?
When, on New Year’s Eve 2016, I happened to be discussing this issue (and practicing my Welsh) with a local whilst admiring Cwm Idwal, he made it clear to me what he thought was killing the Welsh language.
When I asked him if it was Television, the Internet and smartphones, he said that no, the biggest killer was English-Speakers moving in and not learning Welsh.
And I, as an Englishman then studying at Aberystwyth, was not the least bit offended by that idea.
And for the simple reason that it’s not racist to talk about the effect that tourism or move-to-scenic-countryside migration is having on local communities - just as it is not racist to talk about the effect that over-tourism had on, say, Amsterdam, Barcelona, or Venice.
Just as it is also not racist to talk about the possibility that an expanding Brussels commuter belt could kill of Flemish in the surrounding countryside, given that Brussels is a French-Speaking city.
And so I believe that the people of Wales absolutely have a right to ask why on earth, in places such as Bala and Beddgelert, Welsh is dying such a sudden and unnatural death, when up the road, Caernarfon and Blaenau Ffestiniog prove that this need not be the case.
In-migration and Language Collapse – Some Stats
The link between in-migration and the decline of Welsh is particularly striking in Gwynedd, where there appears to be a striking correlation between the percentage of people born outside Wales, and the percentage of school children from non-Welsh-speaking homes.
Here is an example of three communities in Meirionydd (Southern Snowdonia for any non-Welsh readers) that show this correlation so strikingly:
Town / Village name
% of people born outside Wales in 2011
% of Primary School Children from non-Welsh speaking homes in 2013
And you only need to say the words ‘Bangor’, ‘Abersoch’, ‘Beddgelert’ and ‘Betws Y Coed’ – chose your pick, to further prove the point.
But Let’s not be Ageist about it.
When we so often talk about retiree in-migration being the death of the Welsh Language, is that fair? No, I think it’s both ageist, and well, plain wrong.
Think about it, if retiree in-migration were the leading cause of falling percentages of Welsh-Speakers, you'd expect the non-Welsh-speakers to be the retirees, ie the over-65s, and not the young, wouldn't you?
Is that what has happened?
There are indeed a handful of communities, where the non-Welsh-speakers really are the old and not the young:
Take the village of Tudweiliog, on the Llyn Peninsular, where some 94.3% of children in the primary school were from Welsh-Speaking homes in 2013, even though at the 2011 Census some 26.1% of village residents were unable to speak Welsh, and 31.3% of residents were born outside of Wales.
In that coastal village, it really was the retirees who were the non-Welsh-speakers since the children and their parents nearly all spoke Welsh at home.
But is Tudweiliog the norm?
No, unfortunately – and the handful of other communities that fit that same pattern, of the young being nearly all Welsh-mother-tongue but the old not so much, are all rural communities that are not typical.
On the contrary, when in-migration leads to a drop in Welsh, it is much more likely to be school children, and not the old, who stop speaking it first. Retiree migration is, if anything, the least damaging form of in-migration when it comes to the language.
Tudweiliog on the end of the Llyn Peninsular, one of the few communities which follows the pattern of Welsh being near universal amongst the young, but less widespread among the old, and due to retiree in-migration.